Motivating the Adolescent Athlete

Motivation is necessary for developing and performing athletic skills. It is what drives the athlete to successfully acquire a skill through long and arduous practices. The definition of a motive, associated with motivation, is stated in Webster's New World Dictionary as "some inner drive, impulse, intention, etc. that causes a person to do something or act in a certain way;..." (p. 886). High school coaches often find that motivating adolescent males and females can be particularly challenging (Robert et al, 1992). Although motivation can be sometimes difficult to achieve, attention to social influences and using techniques of reinforcement, feedback, and goal setting are ways that can instil motivation in the adolescent athlete.

Adolescents are influenced by their peers, parents, and the social factors that surround them. These aspects shape the behavior of these youths and affect their motivation towards athletics. In a study by Rychman and Hamel (1992) some of the main reasons why female adolescents engaged in sports activities were to make friends, keep existing friends, or a combination of both. However, it is important to note that the athletes who had a greater history of sports participation were more strongly oriented towards their performance. These athletes also required less support and reinforcement from coaches and team mates than did athletes from a less sports oriented background. This study indicates that less experienced players require extra encouragement and support than do more experienced players. Therefore, some emphasis on the social aspects of being on a team should be encouraged.

Coaches must also be perceived by the athletes as honest and caring (Petronio, Martin, and Littlefield, 1984; Westre and Weiss,1991). These characteristics help and support athletes in practice and competition, also, athletes will work successfully with someone they like.

Students may volunteer for high school sports teams because of several factors. Parental or peer pressure may have encouraged them, or perhaps they want something to be identified with. Unfortunately for the coach, the former reason can be difficult to deal with. It can be quite challenging to make someone enjoy himself or herself or to want to participate. However, certain yet-to-be-discussed motivational techniques can be helpful. Also, with patience, learning about the required skill can result in motivation (Magill, 1989).

In regard to the social factors and peer or parental pressure that affect adolescent motivation, emphasizing social interaction with other athletes, providing support and encouragement to new-comers, having the athletes believe in their coach as honest and caring, and patience will help in motivating these youths.

Using positive reinforcement can be a part of motivating the adolescent athlete. Black and Weiss (1992) researched this technique in a study involving swimmers in three age groups; ten to eleven year olds, twelve to fourteen year olds, and fifteen to eighteen year olds. In the last two age groups, (twelve to eighteen year olds inclusive) verbal positive reinforcement and encouragement played a significant role in motivating the athletes. Reinforcement gives some indication of the knowledge of results in practice, but it does depend on whether or not the skill is being performed correctly. This knowledge is then applied to learning so that the athlete can improve on the required actions (Skinner, 1969). If the athlete is not improving, reinforcement can still motivate because it becomes a type of reward. This type of reward can be classified as an extrinsic motivator.

Similar types of reinforcement do not work in the same way for all athletes (Llewellyn and Blucker, 1982). Visual reinforcement (video analysis and comparison) may motivate one athlete, but discourage another. This is also true for verbal reinforcement. Negative criticism, on the other hand, detrimentally affects youth motivation levels. The study by Black and Weiss (1992), which was previously discussed, found that when adolescent swimmers were exposed to such criticism, their motivation dropped. This may happen because the athlete becomes angry, confused, hurt, or a combination of all three (Jones et al. 1982).

Positive reinforcement and encouragement both help youth athletes become motivated to practice and perform well. Every athlete responds differently to different types of reinforcement and encouragement. What may motivate one athlete may discourage another. Negative criticism should be avoided as this tends to discourage the athletes.

Feedback, or knowledge of results, is similar to reinforcement but it provides much more relevant information to the athlete. Research has indicated that knowledge of results is essential to proper skill acquisition (Bilodeau, Bilodeau, and Schumsky, 1959). Black and Weiss also studied the correlation between the use of feedback and motivation. Their results showed that when information was given with encouragement, the athlete's motivation and self-perception of ability rose. It is interesting to note that the females who participated in this study depended less on the comparison with their peers and more on the feedback provided from the adults.

In regard to the format of feedback, visual feedback was much more instructional and useful than verbal feedback (Llewellyn and Blucker, 1982). This was especially true for beginners who had not yet mastered the technical aspects of the skills they were performing. In application, when verbal feedback is used, preferably after visual feedback, it must be precise and effectively communicated.

Feedback is essential to improve the performance of a skill. Knowledge of what can be done to perform better through visual and verbal aids help to improve motivation in adolescent athletes.

Goal setting can be the best motivator of all the previously mentioned techniques. Setting goals provides a step-by-step approach for adolescents to achieve their desired level of performance. Also, setting goals can help to intrinsically motivate these athletes to exercise, as documented by Tappe, Duda, and Menges-Ehrnwald in 1990. This study found that adolescents were intrinsically motivated to reach their fitness goals and consequently exerted more effort towards that goal. With respect to gender, male athletes were more oriented towards winning and competition than females who tended towards personal best efforts and developing social and physical aspects (Rychman and Hamel). However, it is important to remember that this is a general statement and that every athlete is an individual. Another study of male, secondary school basketball players executed by Seifriz, Duda and Chi in 1992 reported that goal orientation helped in intrinsic motivation. This research supports the idea that setting goals helps in motivation, but it is also important to include the athletes and interact with them in the goal creation process. McKenzie and Rushall in 1977 studied this in an experiment involving swimmers and recording performance. The results showed that when the adolescent swimmers were included in the recording and establishment of goals, their motivation increased. Consequently, as their motivation increased, their athletic performance also increased.

Goals can be either extrinsicly motivated, (such as winning a trophy), or intrinsicly motivated (such as a desire to improve technique). Adolescents are constantly being reinforced with extrinsic motivation rather than intrinsic motivation (Llewellyn and Blucker, 1982). This is somewhat unfortunate because coaches must constantly offer material objects to motivate their athletes rather than promote the idea of personal satisfaction from physical activity.

Goal setting is very valuable in motivating teen-aged athletes. Establishing goals helps athletes to work harder, and having them interact with their goals results in higher motivation levels. More emphasis on the intrinsic motivation of young athletes may help to curb the strong tendency to respond to the extrinsic motivation of material gain rather than personal improvement.

Although motivation is important to the athletic performance of adolescent athletes, one motivational technique is not better than any other (Llewellyn and Blucker). Providing such incentive can sometimes be a challenge to the coach, but it can be made easier if the coach pays attention to certain aspects that help in motivation. Parental and peer pressure and social factors can be dealt with by the coach by emphasizing social interaction, encouraging the less experienced players, and being honest, caring and patient. The amount of positive reinforcement and feedback is essential to motivating the athlete and to improving his or her athletic performance. Setting goals and involving the athlete in this process is also an effective motivator for these youths.


Black, S., Weiss, M. (1992). The Relationship Among Perceived Coaching Behaviors, Perceptions of Ability, and Motivation in Competitive Age-Group Swimmers. Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology. 44 (3), 309-325.

Rychman, R., Hamel, J. (1992). Female Adolescents' Motives Related to Involvement in Organized Team Sports. International Journal of Sport Psychology. 23. (2), 147-157.

Westre, K., Weiss, M. (1991). The Relationship Between Perceived Coaching Behaviors and Group Cohesion in High School Football Teams. The Sport Psychologist. 5. (1), 41-54.

Tappe, M., Duda, J., Menges-Ehrnwald, P. (1990). Personal Investment Predictors of Adolescent Motivational Orientation Toward Exercise. Canadian Journal of Sport Sciences. 15. (3), 185-192.

Seifriz, J., Duda, J., Chi, L. (1992). Is it Whether You Win or Lose or How You Play the Game? The Relationship of Perceived Motivational Climate to Enjoyment and Beliefs About Success in High School Basketball Players. Research Quarterly for Exercise and Sport. supplement to 63. (1), A-82.

Robert, L., Zurro, D., Mooney, D., Enright, L., Smedley, J., (1992) Personal Interview. (note: All people interviewed are Secondary School Teachers at West Carleton Secondary School and are either presently coaching or have coached adolescent athletes.)

Llewellyn, J., Blucker, J. (1982) Psychology of Coaching: Theory and Application. Minneapolis, Minnesota: Burgess Publishing Company.

Jones, B., Wells, L., Peters, R., Johnson, D., (1982) Guide to Effective Coaching - Principles and Practice. Boston, Massachussets: Allyn and Bacon, Inc.

Martin, G., Hrycaiko, D. (Eds) [article used was referenced from Rushall, B. on p. 87 to 98.] (1983) Behavior Modification and Coaching - Principles, Procedures, and Research. Springfield, Illinois: Charles C. Thomas.

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